Auto Asphyxiation.


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On Monday, Feb. 9 at 3:30 p.m., Juan Estrada and Victor Flores, fifth-graders at P.S. 124 in Park Slope, were crushed to death by a gravel-filled landscaping truck while walking home from school. The boys were crossing 3rd Ave. at 9th St., a busy but familiar intersection, less than a block from their homes. They were killed in the crosswalk with the pedestrian signal indicating they had the right-of-way.

Like most Brooklyn intersections, the pedestrian and traffic signals at 3rd and 9th light up at exactly the same time. Pedestrians and vehicles begin moving simultaneously. In this case, the truck began making a right turn just as Juan and Victor started into the crosswalk. The driver, John Olson, says he never saw the boys in his big truck’s blind spot. In fact, he didn’t even know he had crushed them beneath his wheels until bystanders flagged him down. Olson received only minor summonses, and the boys’ families are suing the city for $70 million.

We’ve been trained in this country to call automobile killings "accidents." But it’s hard to write this one off so easily. A simple traffic-calming device called a "leading pedestrian interval," or LPI, almost certainly would have prevented this tragedy. An LPI lights up the pedestrian signal about three seconds before vehicular traffic gets the green. This gives pedestrians a head start into the intersection and forces turning vehicles to be less aggressive as they drive through the crosswalk. LPIs might have prevented the type of "right turn conflict" that killed Juan and Victor. The downside of an LPI is that a few less vehicles may be able to move through the intersection at each cycle of the light.

About two and a half years ago, an experimental LPI was installed at Atlantic Ave. and Clinton St. in Cobble Hill as part of an initiative called the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project. The LPI has been a "smashing success" according to Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman and many others. So, why don’t we have an LPI at 3rd and 9th, and what does it take to get the New York City Dept. of Transportation to install one?

DOT’s public affairs office refused to make any of their "highly qualified engineers" available to answer these questions. But one former DOT director of planning, under condition of anonymity, explained to me how it works. There are no formal "warrants" or requirements for installing LPIs in New York City. The decision is made based on "engineering judgment." He said that when traffic engineers analyze an intersection like 3rd and 9th, "they are primarily looking to see that an LPI won’t degrade vehicular ‘level of service.’ DOT’s attitude is, ‘We will do pedestrian safety, but only when it doesn’t come at the expense of the flow of traffic.’"

To the traffic engineers, "it’s all about big maps and traffic counts." Their "engineering judgment" is not likely to take into account the two schools, major subway station, big grocery store, churches, small businesses and working-class Mexican immigrant neighborhood within a few blocks’ walking distance of 3rd and 9th. All the traffic engineers know is that 3rd Ave. and 9th St. are truck routes. Ninth St. exists in this world "for the purpose of pumping morning rush hour traffic through to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel." The avenue is a great place to put vehicles when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway gets full.

"It’s just the way the system works," the former DOT planner continued. "Guys in Lexuses stuck in traffic jams are simply more important than Mexicans crossing the street."

DOT says it is "disingenuous" for anyone to claim that the agency’s traffic engineers could have done anything to prevent Juan and Victor’s deaths. Spokesmen say "budget constraints" have made it impossible to put together the "extensive geometric engineering review and substantial capital" that would be required to make 3rd and 9th safer.

But that’s simply not true. DOT’s failure to implement traffic calming measures at 3rd and 9th has little to do with budget constraints or geometric gobbledygook. The recommendation to install an LPI at this particular intersection has been sitting on a shelf in the DOT Brooklyn Borough Commissioner’s office since, at least, November 2001. That’s when Arup, an internationally respected engineering firm, issued its first draft of the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Plan, and it doesn’t take two years to install an LPI.

This particular traffic-calming device is so inexpensive and easy to set up, DOT doesn’t even bother to put a dollar figure next to it in their budget estimates. All the traffic engineers have to do is make a slight adjustment in the timing of an intersection’s signals. Not only that, if the LPI causes problems, the traffic engineers can simply change the signal back to the way it was. No concrete gets poured. No work crews dig up the street.

The real reason there is no LPI at the intersection where Juan and Victor died is because the traffic engineers who control and run New York City’s Dept. of Transportation fundamentally disagree with the entire concept of traffic calming. In the world of the traffic engineers, taking away five seconds of green time from trucks heading west to the Battery Tunnel is a serious risk. It’s a major sacrifice.

"Unfortunately," says DOT spokesman Keith Kalb, "Not all accidents can be prevented with engineering."


 

Just as the U.S. Dept. of Defense was once more-honestly called the Dept. of War, the New York City Dept. of Transportation was formerly the Dept. of Traffic. Though the name has changed since the days when the all-powerful public works czar Robert Moses flattened vibrant neighborhoods and decimated mass transit to make the city more convenient for motorists, DOT still reflects his cars-first values. We may as well call DOT the "Dept. of Traffic"–as many agency old-timers do–because traffic is what they continue to make. It’s their product. It’s what they are all about.

The way that DOT operates is scandalous. But the scandal is not so much about incompetence or corruption. The DOT is controlled and run by an insular and widely discredited group of professionals called "traffic engineers." The more effectively the traffic engineers do what they perceive to be their job, the more choked and immobilized New York City’s streets become.

The real crime at DOT isn’t so much that the agency is doing a bad job, but that it’s doing the wrong job.

Former DOT Traffic Commissioner and Chief Engineer Sam Schwartz is, himself, a traffic engineer. Best known by his nickname, Gridlock Sam, Schwartz started his career behind the wheel of a New York City taxi and, perhaps, because of that, tends to have a more holistic view of transportation than your typical engineer.

"Traffic engineers have failed," Schwartz says. "If you compare the accomplishments of our profession [in this country] over the last 50 years to the medical profession, our performance is equivalent to millions of people still dying of polio, influenza and other minor bacterial diseases that have been cured."

While London, Paris and municipalities all across Northern Europe are, with great success, developing ways to make their dense central districts less convenient, accessible and free to automobiles, American traffic engineers are still focused on figuring out how to shove more motor vehicles through our nation’s roadways. The traffic engineers’ solution for congestion is to add a lane or build a new road, which in Schwartz’s words is like "telling an obese person that the way to get healthy is to buy a bigger pair of pants and a longer belt."

For Schwartz, the fact that "the interior of our cars have become like our living rooms and offices"–with DVD players, email access, cup holders and beverages and snacks designed specifically to fit in those cup holders–indicates his brethren’s failure. "People know they’ll be spending so much time stuck in traffic they’re equipped to live in their cars."

Whether they know it or not, DOT’s traffic engineers are deeply ideological. Their -ism is motorism; they believe in the primacy of the automobile. One former DOT employee says the agency’s prime directive is "to move the most traffic possible. They always try to maximize the street’s capacity and increase the flow of traffic. The traffic- engineering profession believes that streets are for moving the most amount of vehicular traffic possible. Period."

Although the majority of New Yorkers does not own automobiles, the majority of the city’s public space–the streets–has been annexed for the primary use of motor vehicles. Considering that few things are as valuable in New York City as space, this giveaway may amount to the single biggest government entitlement program we have. As the agency that controls and maintains the city’s streets, DOT runs this program.

The fact that DOT is oriented around moving traffic and maxing out roadway capacity is not a big secret to anyone except, perhaps, the agency’s public affairs office. Spokesman Keith Kalb insists the department’s "primary focus is pedestrian safety." Yet, Kalb’s boss, Commissioner Iris Weinshall is often heard to say that her job is "to keep the traffic moving."

It may be that Kalb and Weinshall haven’t read their agency’s mission statement lately. In fact, the job of DOT is "to provide for the safe, efficient and environmentally responsible movement of people and goods in the City of New York." Unless we as a society have decided that tinted-window Cadillac Escalades with pumping sound systems are the safest, most efficient and environmentally responsible way to move people and goods through the city, DOT simply isn’t fulfilling its mission.

At first glance, the commissioner’s goal to "keep the traffic moving" sounds like a good thing (or, at least an innocuous thing). Urban planners around the world, however, have learned otherwise. In fact, the ultimate result of traffic engineers’ quest for maximum capacity is maximum congestion.

John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, explains: "If you build it, they will come. If you increase the supply of road space, motor vehicles will fill it up. If you reduce the supply, traffic will diminish." Transport for London, the British version of the DOT, studied this phenomenon in the late 90s. They looked at about 50 cases where big roads were suddenly taken out of service by natural disasters and other events–the collapses of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway in 1989 and New York City’s West Side Highway in 1973. In virtually every case, traffic engineers predicted that the reduction in road capacity would create total chaos. They assumed that if 50,000 vehicles per day were using the road that had been taken offline, then almost every one of those vehicles would now travel over surface streets.

This doesn’t happen. The British study found that in every case a significant amount of vehicular traffic simply "disappeared." When it wasn’t convenient to drive anymore, commuters took a different mode of transit, traveled at a different time of day or made fewer, more efficient trips. They concluded that if you tighten roadway capacity and make a city less accessible to the automobile–particularly a city that offers good transit options–there will be less traffic congestion, higher quality of life and significant economic benefits.

In February 2003, London’s mayor Ken Livingstone began charging motorists 5 ($7.50) every time they drove through an eight-square-mile section of Central London. The tolling is automated, so motorists don’t have to slow down or stop at toll booths to pay, and the enforcement is carried out by traffic cameras. Violators are mailed 120 ($180) fines. The initiative is projected to raise $200 million a year, all of which will be used to improve London’s mass transit, pedestrian and cycling facilities.

According to the most recent analysis, congestion pricing has been a major success. Traffic is down by 30 percent, average trip speeds are at their highest since the 1960s and travel times are more reliable. London is now considering an expansion of the congestion-pricing zone.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, has promised to "fight, with all the means at my disposal, against the harmful, ever-increasing and unacceptable hegemony of the automobile." After establishing a number of measures to improve public transportation, in the summer of 2001, Delanoe began closing two and a half miles of the Pompidou Expressway. He then turned Paris’ busiest artery into a public beach and park, complete with sand, grass, palm trees and vendors. On opening day, the usual 200,000 motor vehicles were replaced by 600,000 revelers.

Here in New York City, when Mayor Bloomberg floated the idea of congestion pricing for the East River bridges in his 2003 preliminary budget, the plan was shouted down by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and a cadre of outer-borough councilmembers. Even Manhattan councilmembers whose constituents would most clearly benefit from congestion pricing remained mostly silent.


Take a walk through Downtown Brooklyn at about 10 on a weekday morning. In the likely event that the BQE is choked with traffic, many motorists will have decided to try their luck on the neighborhood streets. On the narrow sidewalks of Court St., pedestrians are jostled off the curb as buses and double-parked trucks turn the air brown with diesel. It’s not difficult to imagine Court St. a vibrant pedestrian mall–except for the fact that DOT traffic engineers believe its purpose in this world is to inject motor vehicles into southern Brooklyn as rapidly as possible.

One block over, Clinton St. is occupied by an armored column of yellow cabs and SUVs horn-blasting their way to the Brooklyn Bridge. One can imagine this tree-lined street of classic brownstones peaceful and pleasant, but traffic engineers see Clinton St. as an on-ramp to the East River bridges and BQE. It is also their personal parking lot. On weekdays, street parking down here is confiscated by government employees with bogus, photocopied parking permits on their dashboards.

Meanwhile, down by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, traffic may be so light that, as Schwartz says, "you can roll a bowling ball to Manhattan." Because the tunnel is tolled, motorists avoid it in favor of downtown’s Brooklyn’s free bridges.

Ever since Robert Moses began plowing the BQE through Brooklyn’s working-class immigrant neighborhoods in 1945, the area’s traffic problems have steadily worsened. Things reached a boiling point in 1986 when, as a gift to his Republican constituents on Staten Island, Senator Alfonse D’Amato helped get rid of the eastbound tolls on the Verrazano Bridge.

"This was the moment when people really started to feel like Brooklyn was being unfairly overrun," recalls local activist and architect Jane McGroarty.

One-way tolls on the Verrazano made political sense, but from an urban-planning perspective they’re a disaster. Rather than driving into Manhattan via the New Jersey Turnpike, Schwartz points out that the current system "encourages truckers to barrel down the rickety BQE and downtown Brooklyn’s neighborhood streets, bounce across the creaky Manhattan Bridge, thunder over choked Canal St., and leave the city via the Holland Tunnel" which is also free going westbound. Using this circuitous route, New Jersey and Staten Island truckers and commuters can save as much as $40 a day in tolls.

In 1997, the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Brooklyn got fed up enough to take to the streets. No wild-eyed anarchists, these: In a series of early morning protests, doctors, lawyers and stroller-pushing mothers put their bodies in front of rush hour traffic to demand that the city do something about the vehicular chaos. In the midst of a reelection campaign, Mayor Giuliani was compelled to respond. The protests began what would become known as the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project (DBTC).

Traffic calming is said to have started in the Dutch city of Delft in the late 1960s when a band of residents, sick of vehicles cutting through their neighborhood, grabbed shovels and pick-axes and reconfigured their street into a serpentine pattern that forced motorists to drive more slowly. Today, it’s an engineering specialty.

But the DOT’s drive to maximize capacity conflicts with the concept of traffic calming. Over the course of the DBTC’s five-year study, DOT engineers steadily dragged their feet and undermined the community’s wishes and Arup’s recommendations. For example, on Hicks St., known to locals as the "fifth lane of the BQE," when Arup said raised crosswalks had to be four inches tall to be effective, DOT insisted they only be two inches. When, as expected, the shorter raised crosswalks proved worse than useless, DOT deemed them a failure and eliminated them from further consideration.

In June 2003, the stakeholders involved in the DBTC gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall for the presentation of Arup’s final recommendations. After the consultant’s lengthy presentation, DOT Deputy Commissioner for Traffic Operations Mike Primeggia announced that the agency would not implement any of the recommendations from the Arup’s 130-page report until 2009–at the earliest.

Sandy Balboza, president of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association recalls: "Primeggia told us that before they’d do anything, DOT needed to re-study every one of the plan’s suggestions. Well, we just spent five years and $1.2 million studying it." To throw a bone to the community, DOT promised to fast-track a set of 30 traffic-signal timing, bike-lane and parking improvements.

DOT was too "timid and conservative" says Community Board 6’s Hammerman. "The whole point of hiring a consultant was to have them think outside the box. But DOT grabbed the Traffic Calming Plan and put it right back in."

Kaehny believes that "DOT never wanted to be at the table. They were forced to do this by city hall. Once Giuliani was gone, it was revenge of the traffic engineers."

For its part, DOT says: "DBTC is ongoing. We’re evaluating the suggestions of the consultants. We don’t know when the final report will be issued." If, as DOT claims, pedestrian safety is its "primary focus," the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project was a perfect opportunity to prove it.

"They could have hit it out of the park," Kaehny says. "They didn’t even swing at it. That’s the power of DOT."

To be fair, DOT does some things right, and New York City’s increasingly broken and dysfunctional car-centered transportation system is not entirely the fault of traffic engineers. The agency is managing near record-levels of vehicular traffic with less and less resources. After a difficult and demoralizing eight-year period during which DOT weathered six different commissioners, massive cuts in budget and operations and a concerted effort to abolish the agency altogether, there has returned to the organization a measure of stability and pride.

Steve Weber, Deputy Commissioner for DOT’s Lower Manhattan office, credits Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Weinshall for "unleashing the expertise of the people who were already in the agency and attracting creative and innovative new people." He says his bosses urge the staff to "develop effective solutions to problems that have seemed unsolvable for decades."

He points to midtown Manhattan’s Thru Streets program as an example of this new spirit. By eliminating turns on certain streets, the administration says Thru Streets has improved pedestrian safety and increased average cross-town automobile speeds from 4.0 mph to 6.1 mph. And though it took decades of community pressure and hundreds of casualties to get DOT to act, the agency has recently made big improvements to pedestrian death-traps like Herald Square, Queens Blvd. and the Grand Concourse.

A former DOT engineer points out that the steady decline in pedestrian fatalities and injuries over the last decade may just as well be attributed to the surge in traffic congestion during the same period. "Pedestrian fatalities have a lot to do with vehicular speed, and vehicular speed in much of Manhattan is negligible."


Though DOT has a lot of power to fix what’s broken about New York City transportation, the agency works within a much larger context of dysfunction, a culture that loves its cars and a city that has little political will to tackle major transportation issues. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the city has no real control over its subways, buses and tolled bridges and tunnels. These are all run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is controlled by the state and the governor. Over the last decade, Republican legislators have increasingly steered MTA resources away from the city and toward the suburbs.

As Kaehny says, "the MTA dwarfs DOT in budget, planning resources and political [power]. The fact that our city’s transit agency is completely separate from the agency that owns and controls the city’s streets is a serious problem."

Then there’s the outer boroughs’ car culture, a powerful force despite New York City’s 46-percent car ownership–the lowest percentage in the nation. At Brooklyn community meetings, it’s not uncommon to hear people complain in one breath about all the traffic in their neighborhood and then demand more parking space for their own cars.

"They don’t want other people to drive through their neighborhood," says Cobble Hill president Roy Sloane, a grizzled veteran of neighborhood transportation battles. "Yet they want to be able to drive around freely and have a parking space when they get there."

Much of New York’s transportation problem is cultural. "This is a city of immigrants," John Kaehny says. "The car is seen as a fundamental totem of making it in the middle class. In Queens, for example, if you tried to charge more for parking on Steinway St. in Astoria you’d be lynched."

Come election time, one of former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s favorite things to do was roll back parking fees. "All that got the people of Queens was a lot of double parking and choked traffic." It also helped Vallone get reelected each year.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is the lack of political will to deal with the city’s transportation issues. There is no transportation vision or leadership coming from City Hall right now.

"Transportation," says Kaehny, "simply isn’t considered a top tier political issue. In New York City it’s all about crime, jobs, schools and the budget. Transportation does not make the cut as a mayoral priority."

Sloane sees DOT traffic engineers as innocent implementers. If traffic engineers are acting as the city’s de facto urban planners, it’s only because they are filling a void left by the politicians. "What’s required is a political commitment to solve these problems. The political decision has to be: We are not looking for maximum vehicular capacity and traffic flow. We are looking for maximum quality of life."

McGroarty notes that "politicians simply don’t want to attack traffic. It’s a no-win situation for elected officials. No matter what they do, they’re going to make somebody unhappy. When you try to reduce someone’s ability to drive their car, they just go ballistic."

When Mayor Bloomberg briefly brought up the idea of tolling the East River Bridges in 2002, he spoke of it only as a revenue-raising measure. Many urban planners and transportation experts see congestion pricing as the best, easiest and most sensible way for New York City to fix its broken transportation system. As one former DOT planner says, the main reason DOT is dysfunctional is simple economics.

"If the cost of something is zero," he explains, "there’s always going to be lots of demand. If ConEd gave electricity away for free then they’d always be installing new wires and infrastructure. Driving is essentially free." DOT can’t keep up with the needs of the city’s pedestrians, cyclists and transit users because they have to maintain the infrastructure for this huge, expensive, entitlement–the ability for New Yorkers to drive a car wherever and whenever they want.

Schwartz wants the mayor and governor to completely revamp the tolling systems in and around New York City and implement congestion pricing for spots with traffic congestion and good mass transit service. Tolling motorists over the Cross Bay, Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges doesn’t make a lot of sense, he notes, but those "diving right into the heart of Midtown Manhattan at rush hour" should pay.

"If you want to drive by and show your kids the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree from the window of your SUV, I’ll charge you $25 for the pleasure of doing that. Want to drive through Central or Prospect Parks? I’ll charge you for it."

The technology exists to do his kind of tolling. Schwartz says that London-style congestion pricing could raise close to a billion dollars and significantly improve the city’s transit systems and overall quality of life.

"If the mayor pulled off the creation of a Dept. of Education," Schwartz says, "he can accomplish this.

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